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Attending To Diverse Flocks

4/06/2008 3:35 AM Eastern

More than one in four American adults have either changed religions once or have ended their religious affiliation, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” released in February 2008. And among married couples, nearly 37% have a spouse with a different religious affiliation.

So it's not surprising that religious networks are increasingly broadening their programming strategies to appeal to a diversity of faiths.

Shalom TV, for instance, offers shows aimed at non-Jews interested in learning more about the faith, perhaps because their spouse is Jewish or because they are considering converting.

“One, After Conversion, is designed for couples in which a non-Jewish spouse has already converted to Judaism,” said president and CEO Rabbi Mark Golub. “[Another] that may help strengthen Jewish identity while giving non-Jews a better understanding of all things Jewish is the original series Judaism 101. This basic introduction to the 'world of Jewish' begins by correcting many of the misconceptions that Jews have about their own tradition and goes on to explain the rationale behind many of the most basic of Jewish practices and values.”

Other networks say that the Pew study highlights the need for programmers to understand as many faiths as possible in order to stay relevant.

“It is essential for all of us to understand the faith traditions that others hold dearly,” Faith & Values Media president and CEO Edward Murray said.

REACHING IMMIGRANTS



In the press release announcing the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” Luis Lugo, the Pew Forum's director, said, “[People will] be surprised by the extent to which immigration is helping to reshape the U.S. religious landscape.”

While faith-based networks are trying to attract these potential viewers by building relationships with well-known religious leaders in countries where a lot of immigrants are coming from, it is not always possible to import religious programming from those countries.

“It's been a real struggle to find people who are not American, who are indigenous,” said John Roos, senior vice president for corporate communications and research at The Inspiration Networks.

One reason for the difficulty is that religious TV is a relatively new phenomenon in many countries, with a scarcity of established TV ministries to mine for content. That's why INSP has started holding workshops abroad aimed at teaching religious leaders about the basics of TV, including lighting, producing and writing.

“We did one in the United Kingdom in October and one in India in November,” Roos said.

But Faith TV said it's finding no shortage of willing and able ministries.

“At each convention, Faith TV is deluged with programming offers from abroad,” said network president Jim West. “We don't have enough of a constituency in any specific ethnic group to commit a block of programming in that language. We have a number of friends in the industry, however, who are rolling out blocks of Hispanic programming in Spanish or building stations to broadcast to foreign language groups.”

BUILDING BRIDGES



At the same time, Faith TV is building its own brand awareness abroad among prospective immigrants.

“We provide programming to many other countries around the world,” West said. “Such programming is usually subtitled in the native language and the English track left intact. We are told [that] many want to keep the English track because their viewers want to enhance their ability to understand and speak English.”

Some networks have been cultivating foreign markets for a decade or longer, making them well-positioned to cater to particular immigrant groups. One example is Trinity Broadcasting Network, which helped a Costa Rican minister purchase a transmitter in the late 1980s.

“It bonded a relationship over the years,” said Bob Higley, TBN's vice president of affiliate sales and marketing. “They were able to grow from one station to hundreds across Latin America, and now into Spain. It's now TBN Enlace for all of Latin America. We're bringing some of these national ministers who are well-known in Latin America to the United States.”

In Russia, a bishop who oversees about 1,000 churches approached TBN about importing its programming. That set the stage for what's now known as TBN Russia to follow immigrants here.

“They started educating us on the millions of Russians who are here, especially in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago,” Higley said. “In fact, TBN Russia now has a contract with Verizon [FiOS].”

Meanwhile, Daystar Television Network frequently brings live and tape-delayed religious events from counties such as Australia, Germany and Nigeria to U.S. audiences.

“Joseph Prince, pastor of the largest church in Singapore, hosts one of Daystar's most popular daily programs,” said Marcus Lamb, founder and president. “Plus, the pastor of the largest church in Australia and the pastor of the largest church in Western Europe all are on Daystar.”

As religious networks add programming aimed at immigrants, it helps multichannel operators as they reach out to those potential customers.

“We're focused on continuing to expand our ethnic programming options,” said Jenny Parker, a spokesperson for AT&T U-verse. “It's important for us to be able to offer content that speaks to the interests of our diverse customer base.”

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